Much has been written about “Trumpism” threatening to reverse post-war trends towards economic openness and the US’s willingness to adopt a leadership role in global affairs (and institutions). However, in many respects, these post-war trends and America’s prominent role in the world is an historical anomaly. America’s isolationist roots pre-date independence and there is more than an element of déjà vu in the events unfolding in the US today. Prior to the Second World War, the US had a long-history of isolationism and non-interventionism. George Washington advised against involvement in European conflict and politics in his Farewell Address:
“The Great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign Nations is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible.”
For much of the 19th Century, the US remained remarkably isolated until compelled to abandon its neutrality in World War One. Nevertheless, the US was quick to revert to its inward-looking tendencies. After the war, the Treaty of Versailles was repudiated and the US refused to become a member of the then League of Nations. In the 1920’s, tariffs were imposed to protect US manufacturing and quotas were introduced to restrict European immigration (150,000 per year in 1929).
In an echo of America today, bankers and arms manufacturers were blamed for pushing the US into war for profit, much as greedy multinational firms and banks are blamed for driving globalisation at the expense of Middle America. It is now the seemingly endless involvement in intractable Middle-Eastern wars and a sense of bearing a disproportionate cost of keeping the world safe that rankles. Mired in the Great Depression, public opinion in the 1930’s had become decidedly isolationist and attention focussed inwards on domestic issues.
FD Roosevelt’s more internationalist views were stymied by congress, which, in the face of Nazi and Imperial Japan’s sabre rattling, passed several neutrality acts that sought to avoid entanglement. Nazi conquests and the Battle of Britain in 1940 proved to be a turning point as national sentiment shifted, partly out of solidarity, but mostly out of self-interest and the fear that America would ultimately and unavoidably become a victim of aggression. Pearl Harbour provided the inflection point that led to America adopting the mantle of global leadership and the role of champion of the free world. Until now that is!
In further parallels, isolationist support in the 1930’s was strongest in the Midwest and small-town America and amongst Republicans – exactly where Donald Trump’s support base is the strongest today. The East and West coast elites were blamed for entanglement in foreign affairs, reflecting the polarisation evident in November’s election and its aftermath. Core to the divide between the internationalists and isolationists is the issue of ideology. Underpinning isolationist ideas is a fervent ideology (witness Trump’s campaign manager, Steve Bannon), whilst proponents of internationalism have never managed to inspire a coherent counter-ideology. This is where the democrats’ “pragmatic” agenda failed in November and why I think Bernie Sanders would have fared better against Trump (incidentally, Sanders’ progressive ticket was infused with a healthy dollop of protectionism too).
The world is a smaller place that will shrink still further with technology. Economies are inextricably linked and multi-national cooperation is critical to keeping it prosperous and safe. We have seen the costs and benefits of America’s engagement in the world; the League of Nations was powerless to stem the tide of German and Japanese aggression in no small part because of America’s absence. In contrast, America’s support of the UN and role in NATO made the world a safer place in the face of Soviet expansionism.
In short, the world needs the US to fulfil an active leadership role to promote global stability and the US can no-longer survive without the world. The fear is that Donald Trump threatens to create a dangerous power vacuum – and nature abhors a vacuum. The danger is that the administration underestimates the fragility of the global economic system and the potential domino effect that protectionism could trigger. Also, the act of balancing global power through interactions with friends and foe alike is a delicate one. It is unclear what results an unconventional and abrasive approach may yield, but one gets the sense that a lot of matches are being flicked at dry powder.